Xs & Os: Davis a "Factor Back"?

Doug Farrar takes a look at whether James Davis can make an impact on the NFL. What does a play executed against the Chicago Bears last Thursday indicate about his future?

Among the most interesting (read: annoying) clichés on the otherwise excellent NFL Matchup show is Merrill Hoge's ceaseless use of the "factor back" term. We're assuming Merrill means "feature back", but he just wants a bit more punch in the phrase. Anyway, when Hoge and Ron Jaworski aren't arguing about whether the forward pass should or should not be banished from the NFL, they do manage to look at some game tape and make interesting conclusions, which is what I'd like to do about a possible "factor back" for the Cleveland Browns in 2010.

James Davis is a guy who's been a bit forgotten in the wake of the shoulder injury that shortened his rookie season last year, the sudden and unexpected ascent of Jerome Harrison, and the selection of Montario Hardesty in 2010. But other developments – most notably the torn left ACL that ended Hardesty's rookie season before it even began – made Davis a player in that sweepstakes. Harrison is a versatile, jumpy scatback, and Hillis is playing the same one-off role he played in Denver; able to do a bit of everything. The Browns still need a back that can drive between the tackles, and that's where Hardesty was supposed to come in. Now, it's where Davis might find himself back in the spotlight.

At 5-foot-11, the sixth-round pick (who went the same high school as Jamal Lewis) was expected to try and take a little of Lewis' action in the power department. But he suffered that shoulder injury and landed in IR by way of the notorious "opportunity period" in practice, when he was not wearing shoulder pads and was tackled by a defender who was. After all the rehab and hard work, Davis got opportunities in the Browns' final preseason game against the Chicago Bears, and I saw some interesting things about his running style.

Davis started his day with 13:38 left in the second quarter, taking a 9-yard run to the right off of some excellent inside blocking. Note: I would have loved to have diagrammed the play for you, but the guy directing the coverage of this game thought it would be better to show the piercing eyes of right defensive end Jarron Gilbert instead of the opening formation. Gosh, I love when they do stuff like that. Davis gained a total of  -1 yard on his next two runs (an eight-in-the box run stunt, and a play in which he tried to stretch it outside and ran out of space), but his 14-yard gain with 9:13 left in the first half was quite a bit more impressive. Since the camera co-operated this time, let's see what happened.

On the play (Fig. 1), the Browns went shotgun, three-wide against Chicago's 4-2 nickel set. Colt McCoy took a high snap from center Shawn Lauvao, ran an abbreviated playfake, and handed off to Davis on a draw play. Cleveland's pass-blocking induced the Chicago front four away from the run possibility, and Davis had a clean lane up the middle (he was helped by Lauvao, who made up for the bad snap with an excellent second-level block on linebacker Kevin Malast). As tight end Evan Moore blocked outside linebacker Brian Iwuh at the same level, Davis bounced outside that block and continued downfield until safety Josh Bullocks took him down. This was an excellent combination of tandem blocking and power running, and hopefully something the Browns can rely on in-season.

Davis is about what you'd expect from a power back in some respects, but his inline speed is better than average, and he does have some agility in the open field (he ran a 4.45-40 at his Pro Day), but he's not a guy who's going to beat safeties to the edge. The one thing I think he has going in his favor is his ability to bounce outside of first contact between the tackles and have open seams to the second level. Is he a "factor back"? Often, it takes just one opportunity for that to become obvious.


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